WPP’s lawyers on ‘gardening leave’ alert as Collins and Exon quit RKCR/Y&R to launch breakaway

This morning we learned that Guy Hayward was quitting as CEO of JWT London and this afternoon we learned that RKCR/Y&R CEO Richard Exon (left) and ECD Damon Collins were quitting to form their own agency. Both agencies are owned by WPP.

It doesn’t seem that long since David Golding, Ben Priest and James Murphy departed RKCR/Y&R to set up the highly successful Adam & Eve, proud hosts of the John Lewis account. Golding, Priest and Murphy were then hammered with a writ from RKCR/Y&R owner WPP for breaking the non-compete terms of their contracts (‘gardening leave’) by soliciting clients and forced to cough up the best part of £1m in damages and costs.

WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell doesn’t take kindly to key staff leaving and nicking clients and he’s launched a number of legal actions over the past few years to prevent them doing so (or make it more difficult and expensive anyway). WPP’s lawyers have ranged far and wide to protect the company’s interests including suing Hill & Knowlton PR executives in Australia when they joined Edelman and launching a Darth Vader-like attack on agency marriage brokers Oystercatchers for funny business involving the ambitions of various WPP consultancy managers.

The fortunes of Adam & Eve won’t have been lost on Collins and Exon (fame and money good, annoying Sir Martin bad) but, in truth, any breakaway has at least half an eye on a piece of business that it thinks will, one day, follow them. How Collins and Exon juggle this will be interesting to observe.

And the same considerations apply to Guy Hayward, the exiting CEO of JWT London. If he does indeed join Havas-owned BETC, WPP will be very keen to ensure that he doesn’t take any business or staff with him. Big agency networks like WPP’s JWT, Ogilvy and Y&R are more vulnerable than ever from A-list clients deciding that they can go with a smaller creative outfit (and cheaper, probably) as the technicalities of handling global ad distribution can now be handled via the internet.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Mother and Wieden+Kennedy have all shown that this can be done for clients who have faith and are willing to risk a bit.

There’ll be lots more executives at WPP and its rivals who will be thinking that now is the time to go for broke.

And, as always, it’ll be the legal community who can afford to be relaxed about it. They get paid by both sides of course.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.